From Endurance to Dressage
Today is my final day as a MARE volunteer. While I am looking forward to having my Wednesdays back, I'm also a bit sad to be leaving. Being a volunteer has been a very rewarding experience.
Wednesday afternoons have really filled up. We have four kiddos that ride in three lessons while I am there, a little boy, two girls, and the 5th grader that has quickly become my favorite. Last Wednesday, our first little guy was a no-show which was disappointing as Trainer 2 had worked on some songs to try to get him to engage with us. The two girls showed up for their lesson though as did our last kiddo of the day.
My little lady rider got to use the reins for stopping and turning. Since she's a little uncoordinated, the reins were clipped to the riding halter so that she wouldn't annoy Cricket. Instead of the rides where the kids find puzzle pieces or toss bean bags into buckets, the lesson was about influencing the horse with the reins in order to execute right and left turns.
For the 5th Grader's lesson, he was working on go, whoa, and turning almost solo. My job was to be there in case of an emergency or spook. He used a side walker for one lap around the arena, but after that it was just him and me with Trainer 1 keeping a close eye.
It was by far the funnest lesson I've done at MARE. T1 set up a speaker and asked our 5th Grader what kind of music he liked. She had him do a Red Light- Green Light sort of game where he whoa'ed Smoothie when the music stopped and then sent him forward when the music started up again. For turning right and left, she had him follow her around the arena as she weaved between cones and did figure eights.
It's a challenge for the horse handler to keep control while still allowing the rider to be effective with the aids. Smoothie followed T1 to some degree, and I am sure my body position affected him in the turns as well, but I really did try to let the rider make the turns without my help. It was so much fun to see our rider feel empowered as he rode.
There was talk that this particular rider might get to ride on his own this afternoon. I sure hope so!
For the past four and a half months, I've spent all but two Wednesdays volunteering at MARE as a horse handler, side walker, and Jill-of-all-trades. While I really enjoy doing the barn chores, the past couple of weeks have been all about lessons. Surprisingly, I've been having a lot of fun doing those, and I actually feel a great deal of satisfaction serving in that capacity. Serving those in need has been very gratifying. It also keeps me on my feet, both metaphorically and literally.
When I look at my data from my smart watch, Wednesdays are always the days with the most steps. Over the past several weeks, that data has risen as all I've done is serve as horse handler or side walker. Lessons are around 30 minutes, sometimes longer, but when you do lessons back to back to back, it's easy to put some miles on your boots. I don't mind though as it's good exercise, and it is time very well spent.
Last week, I participated in three lessons. The first was with a new student as his side walker. Trainer 2 asked me to secure him in the saddle while also moving his arms up or down or to the side. From what I observed in the lesson, his ability to communicate is very poorly developed, so the trainer focused on getting him to name plastic fruit pieces that we found in the arena. When he was able to identify the fruit, the color, or the letter, we cheered and gave him as much positive feedback as possible. That lesson in particular showed how valuable volunteers are to a program like MARE.
The second lesson was with two young girls who have been coming to MARE much longer than I have. As always, one still will only 'lead" her horse, but my young charge enthusiastically plops down on Cricket's broad back. I am itching to do the same frankly. Cricket is a Halflinger who is worth her (substantial) weight in gold. While Cricket is the kindest soul, she also has a personality that you can't help but respect. She's definitely the queen of the place.
The last lesson of the day was with the 5th grader that I have worked with the past two weeks. This is one cool kid, but of course I may be biased as I teach 5th grade and think that age group is pretty much the bomb. Since Haven was a bit colicky, we used Smoothie, the gelding who had injured himself on the fence several months before. It was my first time handling Smoothie in a lesson, but despite being off for months, he worked like a champ.
For Wednesday's lesson, our 5th grader was learning to whoa with the reins as well as turn right or left. He's the first student that I've worked with who has used the reins at all. Being the horse handler meant that I had to be in control while still letting him ask Smoothie to whoa and turn. I gave him as much lead rope as I could safely give so that he could actually be in charge of the stopping and turning, but I also had to stay out of the way so that I didn't get run over when he turned left.
This afternoon is my penultimate day volunteering. I am sure that it will be the same as last week - horse handling and side walking. Volunteers have been a bit thin on Wednesdays though so I might still get to do some extra barn chores.
Volunteering is definitely better than going to the gym.
My stint as a MARE volunteer is coming to a close. I am not done quite yet, but the clock is ticking. When I showed up last week, Trainer 2 spotted me before I was even through the gate and asked if I could relieve Trainer 1 who was serving as a horse handler for the lesson with my favorite kiddo. I broke into a little jog, signed in, grabbed my name tag, and ducked through the fence so I could take hold of Haven's lead rope.
I don't know what the rest of the week looks like, but Wednesdays seem to be the hardest day to find volunteers. We are always short handed. That's probably why I've been able to learn so many different jobs. After each volunteer completes their training, they receive a name tag with different icons colored in. Each colored icon indicates which jobs you are permitted to do. My name tag shows that I have clearance for all jobs, but I was specifically trained for horse handler as that job is the hardest to find qualified candidates for. Anyone can sweep, but not everyone knows how to tack up a horse.
There have been so many weeks though where there haven't been enough volunteers which means the kids get barn lessons instead of riding lessons. And on the weeks where we have too many volunteers, I have cheerfully (and willingly) opted to do the less glamorous jobs like digging ditches, cleaning tack, and weighing out the feed. Last Wednesday turned out to be the first week where I was the only horse handler. As soon as the lesson was done, I handed Haven off to T2 for another lesson and hurried back inside to get George tacked up for his lesson.
The two little girls who come on Wednesday afternoons are pretty interesting One is non-verbal, and after a spook on George, she has since refused to do a mounted lesson. Since I've been volunteering, she only does a walking lesson where she "leads" her horse. In an attempt to reduce her fear, she was recently partnered with Cricket the Haflinger, but so far, she hasn't been able to mount. That meant I led George for the other kiddo's lesson.
As I untacked George, T1 asked if I could do one more lesson with Haven and a new student. As I put George back in his stall, T1 handed me the lead rope and off I went with Haven for round three. I had met the new kiddo the previous week, so I was eager to get to know him. He's a fifth grader which means we speak the same language. He was super fun to work with because he was so enthusiastic about the lesson.
For the three lessons I did, there was only one side walker and no other horse handlers which was why T1 and T2 were helping each other by serving as the horse handlers. Like most Wednesdays, by the time the last horse was brought in, all of the volunteers had gone leaving me on my own. While I took care of the outside horses, Reina and Knightly, the two trainers fed everyone inside the barn.
With no other horse handlers onsite for the afternoon, the ladies kept me plenty busy. I was so busy tacking up, leading, and untacking that it didn't leave me any time for the other jobs that I enjoy so much. I was itching to get the blower out to clean out the crossties and barn aisle, but there simply wasn't time. Fortunately, the hay had already been weighed and brought in, so that made feeding a lot quicker than it might have been.
After a whirlwind two hours of horse handling, I looked around to see that the three of us were standing in the barn aisle with the day's jobs pretty much finished. It was then that I let both trainers know that my last Wednesday was on the horizon. They didn't mean to make me feel guilty, but they laughed and said that if it worked, they were glad to have done it.
We'll be in Europe the first half of June, so I knew I couldn't help then, but I am wondering how I'll feel when we get back. The truth is that there will be another six weeks before I go back to teaching. Do I need the break, or could I do another session? I am looking forward to the mentoring position that I'll likely be getting in August, but I might have room for one more round of volunteering.
It is so hard to say no.
When I got to MARE last Wednesday, my step was a bit lighter. Having decided that this would be my last session was the right decision. While I have thoroughly enjoyed volunteering - despite the one or two uncomfortable experiences, I am ready to move on to something else. All those who know me personally know that I am a hard worker and that I am never flakey, so even though I am on the leaving end of things, I still showed up last week committed to help with whatever tasks needed doing.
When I walked through the front gate, I immediately noticed that the hay buckets had not yet been filled. Trainer 1 greeted me from the arena, so I knew she was finished with her lesson. I asked if she would like me to weigh the hay and fill buckets to which she gratefully replied PLEASE! As I mentioned last week, these behind the scenes types of jobs are the ones I enjoy most, so I think I was happier doing this job than T1 was for me to do the job.
I've written about filling the hay buckets before, but this was the first time that I did the entire job on my own. For me, it is actually a zen-like job. This kind of repetitive work allows me to let go of the mental stress that comes with teaching and lets me exercise my body instead. To start, I arranged the buckets by type and then got to work. Each horse has two buckets, one for the a.m. feeding, and the other for the evening feeding. The evening feed bucket goes on top as it will be doled out first.
Each horses' ration is written on the dry erase board. The number indicates the pounds to be weighed out, and the A or G stand for the hay type, alfalfa or grass. Most of the horses get a combination of the two, and the morning and evening amounts are usually different. Some get more grass in the morning and more alfalfa at night, or the weight will be different. I started by placing the empty buckets on the scaled and "zeroed" out the reading. I added the first type of hay until the scale read the correct weight, and then I added the second type of hay to reach the total. Sadie, for example, gets 5A/2G in the morning and 3A/4G in the afternoon. That's 7 pounds twice a day.
As I was finishing filling the last few buckets, T1 came to help, but I assured her I had it under control. Apparently, filling buckets is a job not many want to do. Once I found out that I wasn't needed as a horse handler - a student had cancelled, I told T1 that I would also load up the buckets and work in the hay barn a bit longer. With nothing but time, I set to work cleaning up behind the hay. I swept, folded tarps, gathered loose tools, and knocked down all of the cobwebs. And then I did a second round of sweeping and de-webbing the space.
As I was finishing, T1 asked if I would finish rinsing George and then put him away which I did. Once he was back in his stall, I went back out and cleaned up the wash rack station by returning all of the grooming tools and shampoos to their respective buckets and coiled up the hose. From there, I went back to the hay barn and dumped the dust and molded hay that I had swept up into the compost pile, cleaned a few stalls, and then helped with feeding. After a long work day and two hours spent sweeping and cleaning, I was tired both mentally and physically, but it was a good tired.
I'll be back this afternoon. Hopefully there are more barn chores left to do.
After a two-week break for Easter, I was back at MARE last Wednesday. Over the three or four months that I've been a MARE volunteer, I've seen volunteers come and go, just as they'll see me come and go. Last Wednesday, I let the trainers know that May 24th or 31st will be my last day, whichever is the end of the session. I had thought I would continue through the summer and on into the fall, but I have applied for an additional job in my district as a mentor to first year teachers. I'm 99% sure I'll be selected, but if not, I might consider going back to MARE.
As mentor, I would be assigned one or two new teachers who either don't yet have a credential and are working to earn it or a teacher who has his or her credential but must now complete the Induction Program in order to clear it. I would still keep my position as a classroom teacher, but outside of our contract hours, I would meet with my mentees to help them through the year. The mentor position receives a stipend, so it's not exactly a "volunteer" position, but I feel it would check off my self-imposed need to give back obligation.
Last Wednesday, I was to be George's handler, but his young rider was unable to come. In some ways, I was glad. Over the few months that I've been at MARE, I've realized a few things. First, I do not like centerstage. I don't like to be in the spotlight. Instead, I prefer working behind the scenes. Being the horse handler or side walker are really visible jobs, but they're too much like both my real job and hobby - teacher and rider. The jobs I have most enjoyed at MARE have been the ones that involved physical labor. I've dug ditches, cleaned stalls, hauled in equipment, filled feed buckets, cleaned tack, measured saddles, sorted pads, and my favorite - used the blower to clear the barn aisle and walk ways.
During the brief what's next? conversation that followed once a second horse wasn't needed after all, I heard that some of the hay buckets still needed to be weighed and filled. I quickly volunteered once I knew that I wasn't needed as a side walker. Weighing out the hay for the horses is a job I enjoy. It's necessary and satisfying. Having only done it once before though, it took me a few tries to get the scale turned on, switched to pounds, and then zeroed out for each horses' bucket weight. Eventually, after filling and weighing Sadie's bucket three times, I finally got all of the steps done in the right order. With the last of the hay buckets filled, I loaded the Gator so that it was ready for feeding time.
Once the hay was was done, I went inside and cleaned Sadie's bridle. The Program Director had asked if I had been the one who had cleaned all of the stored bridles. She was thrilled with how nicely conditioned they were and asked if I could start working on the everyday, in-use bridles. I happily agreed and now plan to get at least one done each Wednesday until I leave.
There was also a new volunteer. One thing I've noticed is that there is not a lot of camaraderie amongst the volunteers which could simply be because Wednesday's volunteer crew seems to have a lot of turnover. Either way, I made sure to include the volunteer while I was bringing in Haven and feeding. Event though she probably had a similar training to the one I had, I showed her how to bring horses in, which bucket of hay was for dinner, and how to turn both Reina and Knightly out. By the time the last horse was fed and tools stored, I looked around and realized I was yet again the last volunteer of the day. After chatting with both trainers for a few minutes, I said my goodbyes, turned in my name tag, and signed out.
I think I'll miss the place once I leave. The good thing is that I can always go back.
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2023 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2023 Show Schedule
2023 Completed …
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: